Though they say, "The Lord liveth," surely they swear falsely.-- JEREMIAH v. 2.
I spoke last Sunday morning of the wonderful way in which the Lord delivered the Jews from the Assyrian army, and I promised to try and explain to you this morning, the reason why the Lord allowed the Assyrians to come into Judaea, and ravage the whole country except the one small city of Jerusalem.
My text is taken from the first lesson, from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. And it, I think, will explain the reason to us.
For though Jeremiah lived more than a hundred years after Isaiah, yet he had much the same message from God to give, and much the same sins round him to rebuke. For the Jews were always, as the Bible calls them, "a backsliding people;" and, as the years ran on, and they began to forget their great deliverance from the Assyrians, they slid back into the very same wrong state of mind in which they were in Isaiah's time, and for which God punished them by that terrible invasion.
Now, what was this?
One very remarkable thing strikes us at once. That when the Assyrians came into Judaea, the Jews were NOT given up to worshipping false gods. On the contrary, we find, both from the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles, that a great reform in religion had taken place among them a few years before. Their king Hezekiah, in the very first year of his reign, removed the high places, and cut down the groves (which are said to have been carved idols meant to represent the stars of heaven), and even broke in pieces the brazen serpent which Moses had made, because the Jews had begun to worship it for an idol. He trusted in the Lord God, and obeyed Him, more than any king of Judah. He restored the worship of the true God in the temple, according to the law of Moses, with such pomp and glory as had never been seen since Solomon's time. And not only did he turn to the true God, but his people also. From the account which we find in Chronicles, they seemed to have joined him in the good work. They offered sin-offerings as a token of the wickedness of which they have been guilty, in leaving the true God for idols; and all other kinds of offerings freely and willingly. "And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people that God had prepared the people. Moreover, Hezekiah called all the men in Judaea up to Jerusalem, to keep the passover according to the law of Moses," which they had neglected to do for many years, and the people answered his call and "came, and kept the feast at Jerusalem seven days, with joy and great gladness, offering peace-offerings, and making confession to the God of their fathers. So there was great joy in Jerusalem; for since the time of Solomon there was not the like in Jerusalem. Then the priests and the Levites arose, and blessed the people, and their voice was heard, and their prayer came up to the Lord's holy dwelling, even to heaven." And when it was all finished, the people went out of their own accord, and destroyed utterly all the idols, and high places, and altars throughout the land, and returned to their houses in peace.
Now does not all this sound very satisfactory and excellent? What better state of mind could people be in? What a wonderful reform, and spread of true religion! The only thing like it, that we know, is the wonderful reform and spread of religion in England in the last sixty years, after all the ungodliness and wickedness that went on from the year 1660 to the time of the French war; the building of churches, the founding of schools, the spread of Bibles, and tracts, and the wonderful increase of gospel preachers, so that every old man will tell you, that religion is talked about and written about now, a thousand times more than when he was a boy. Indeed, unless a man makes a profession of some sort of religion or other, nowadays, he can hardly hope to rise in the world, so religious are we English become.
Now let us hear what Isaiah thought of all that wonderful spread of true religion in his time; and then, perhaps, we may see what he would think of ours now, if he were alive. His opinion is sure to be the right one. His rules can never fail, for he was an inspired prophet, and saw things as they are, as God sees them; and therefore his rules will hold good for ever. Let us see what they were.
The first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah is called "The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah." Now this is one prophecy by itself, in the shape of a poem; for in the old Hebrew it is written in regular verses. The second chapter begins with another heading, and is the beginning of a different poem; so that this first chapter is, as it were, a summing up of all that he is going to say afterwards; a short account of the state of the Jews for more than forty years. And what is more, this first chapter of Isaiah must have been written in the reign of Hezekiah, in those very religious days of which I was just speaking; for it says that the country was desolate, and Jerusalem alone left. And this never happened during Isaiah's lifetime, till the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, that is, till this great spread of the true religion had been going on for thirteen years. Now what was Isaiah's vision? What did he, being taught by God's Spirit, SEE was God's opinion of these religious Jews? Listen, my friends, and take it solemnly to heart!
"Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts: and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. . . . How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water; thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. Therefore, saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, the mighty one of Israel, Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies." . . .
Again, I say, my friends, listen to it, and take it solemnly to heart! That is God's opinion of religion, even the truest and soundest in worship and doctrine, when it is without godliness, without holiness; when it goes in hand with injustice, and covetousness, and falsehood, and cheating, and oppression, and neglect of the poor, and keeping company with the wicked, because it is profitable; in short, when it is like too much of the religion which we see around us in the world at this day.
Yes--it was of no use holding to the letter of the law while they forgot its spirit. God had commanded church-going, and woe to those, then or now, who neglect it. Yet the Lord asks, "Who hath required this at your hands, to tread my courts?". . . He had commanded the Sabbath-day to be kept holy; and woe to those, then or now, who neglect it. Yet He says, "Your Sabbaths I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting." The Lord had appointed feasts: and yet He says that His soul hated them; they were a trouble to Him; He was weary to bear them. The Lord had commanded prayer; and woe to those, then or now, in England, as in Judaea, who neglect to pray. And yet He says: "When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear." And why?--He himself condescends to tell them the reason, which they ought to have known for themselves: "Because," He says, "your hands are full of blood." This was the reason why all their religiousness, and orthodoxy, and church-going, and praying, was only disgusting to God; because there was no righteousness with it. Their faith was only a dead, rotten, sham faith, for it brought forth no fruits of justice and love; and their religion was only hypocrisy, for it did not make them holy. No doubt they thought themselves pious and sincere enough; no doubt they thought that they were pleasing God perfectly, and giving Him all that He could fairly ask of them; no doubt they were fiercely offended at Isaiah's message to them; no doubt they could not understand what he meant by calling them a hypocritical nation, a second Sodom and Gomorrah, while they were destroying idols, and keeping the law of Moses, and worshipping God more earnestly than He had been worshipped since Solomon's time. But so it was. That was the message of God to them; that was the vision of Isaiah concerning them; that there was no soundness in the whole of the nation, "from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, nothing but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores"--that is, that the whole heart and conscience, and ways of thinking, were utterly rotten, and abominable in the sight of God, even while they were holding the true doctrines about them, and keeping up the pure worship of Him. This, says the Lord, is not the way to please me. "He hath showed thee, oh man, what is good. And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" To do justly, to love mercy, and then to walk humbly, sure that when you seem to have done all your duty, you have left only too much of it undone; even as St. Paul felt when he said, that though he knew nothing against himself; though he could not recollect a single thing in which he had failed of his duty to the Corinthians, yet that did not justify him. "For he that judgeth me," he says, "is the Lord." He sees deeper than I can; and He, alas! may take a very different view of my conduct from what I do; and this life of mine, which looks to me, from my ignorance, so spotless and perfect, may be, in His eyes, full of sins, and weakness, and neglects, and shameful follies. "To walk humbly with God." Not to believe that because you read the Bible, and have heard the gospel, and are sharp at finding out false doctrine in preachers, and belong to the Church of England, that therefore you know all about God, and can look down upon poor papists, and heathens, and say: "This people, which knoweth not the law, is accursed: but WE are enlightened, we understand the whole Bible, we know everything about God's will, and man's duty; and whosoever differs from us, or pretends to teach us anything new about God, must be wrong." Not to do so, my friends, but to believe what St. Paul tells us solemnly, "That if any man think that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know"--to believe that the Great God, and the will of God, and the love of God, and the mystery of Redemption, and the treasures of wisdom which are in His Bible, are, as St. Paul told you, boundless, like a living well, which can never be fathomed, or drawn dry, but fills again with fresh water as fast as you draw from it. That is walking humbly with God; and those who do not do so, but like the Pharisees of old, believe that they have all knowledge, and can understand all the mysteries of the Bible, and go through the world, despising and cursing all parties but their own--let them beware, lest the Lord be saying of them, as He said of the church of Sardis, of old: "Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."
How is this? What is this strange thing, without which even the true knowledge of doctrine is of no use; which, if a man, or a nation has not, he is poor, and blind, and wretched, and naked in soul, in spite of all his religion? Isaiah will tell us--What did he say to the Jews in his day?
"Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Do justice to the fatherless, and relieve the widow!" "Do that," says the Lord, "and then your repentance will be sincere. Church building and church going are well--but they are not repentance--churches are not souls. I ask you for your hearts, and you give me fine stones and fine words. I want souls--I want YOUR souls--I want you to turn to me. And what am I? saith the Lord. I am justice, I am love, I am the God of the oppressed, the fatherless, the widow.--That is my character. Turn to justice, turn to love, turn to mercy; long to be made just, and loving, and merciful; see that your sin has been just this, and nothing else, that you have been unjust, unloving, unmerciful. Repent for your neglect and cruelty, and repent in dust and ashes, when you see what wretched hypocrites you really are. And then, my boundless mercy and pardon shall be open to you. As you wish to be to me, so will I be to you; if you wish to become merciful, you shall taste my mercy; if you wish to become loving to others, you shall find that I love you; if you wish to become just, you shall find that I am just, just to deal by you as you deal by others; faithful and just to forgive you your sins, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. And then, all shall be forgiven and forgotten; "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
Surely, my friends, these things are worth taking to heart; for this is the sin which most destroys all men and nations--high religious profession with an ungodly, covetous, and selfish life. It is the worst and most dangerous of all sins; for it is like a disease which eats out the heart and life without giving pain; so that the sick man never suspects that anything is the matter with him, till he finds himself, to his astonishment, at the point of death. So it was with the Jews, three times in their history. In the time of Isaiah, under King Hezekiah; in the time of Jeremiah, under King Josiah; and last and worst of all, in the time of Jesus Christ. At each of these three times the Jews were high religious professors, and yet at each of these three times they were abominable before God, and on the brink of ruin. In Isaiah's time their eyes seemed to have been opened at last to their own sins. Their fearful danger, and wonderful deliverance from the Assyrians of which you heard last Sunday, seem to have done that for them; as God intended it should. During the latter part of Hezekiah's reign they seemed to have turned to God with their hearts, and not with their lips only; and Isaiah can find no words to express the delight which the blessed change gives him. Nevertheless, they soon fell back again into idolatry; and then there was another outward lip-reformation under the good King Josiah; and Jeremiah had to give them exactly the same warning which Isaiah had given them nearly a hundred years before. But that time, alas! they would not take the warning; and then all the evil which had been prophesied against them came on them. From hypocritical profession, they fell back again into their old idolatry; their covetousness, selfishness, party-quarrels, and profligate lives made them too weak and rotten to stand against Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, when he attacked them; and Jerusalem was miserably destroyed, the temple burnt, and the Jews carried captives to Babylon. There they repented in bitter sorrow and slavery; and God allowed them after seventy years to return to their own land. Then at first they seemed to be a really converted people, and to be worshipping God in spirit and in truth. They never again fell back into the idolatry of the heathen. So far from it, they became the greatest possible haters of it; they went on keeping the law of God with the utmost possible strictness, even to the day when the Lord Jesus appeared among them. Their religious people, the Scribes and Pharisees, were the most strict, moral, devout people of the whole world. They worshipped the very words and letters of the Bible; their thoughts seemed filled with nothing but God and the service of God: and yet the Lord Jesus told them that they were in a worse state, greater sinners in the sight of God, than they had ever been; that they, who hated idolatry, were filling up the measure of their idolatrous forefathers' iniquity; that the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth was to fall on them; that they were a race of serpents, a generation of vipers; and that even He did not see how they could escape the damnation of hell. And they proved how true His words were, by crucifying the very Lord of whom their much- prized Scriptures bore witness, whom they pretended to worship day and night continually; and received the just reward of their deeds in forty years of sedition, bloodshed, and misery, which ended by the Romans coming and sweeping the nation of the Jews from off the face of the earth.
So much for profession without practice. So much for true doctrine with dishonest and unholy lives. So much for outward respectability with inward sinfulness. So much for hating idolatry, while all the while men's hearts are far from God!
Oh! my friends, let us all search our hearts carefully in these times of high profession and low practice; lest we be adding our drop of hypocrisy to the great flood of it which now stifles this land of England, and so fall into the same condemnation as the Jews of old, in spite of far nobler examples, brighter and wider light, and more wonderful and bounteous blessings.